It has been quite the journey from Reno, Nevada to Seattle, Washington where I now serve as CEO of the world’s largest family foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
I am fortunate to oversee our four missions: ensure kids survive and thrive, empower the poorest, combat infectious disease, and inspire others to act. To execute on these, I ask myself and my colleagues every day: What if?
What if infectious diseases no longer wreak havoc on poor communities?
What if women and girls everywhere were empowered to transform their lives?
What if all children — especially the poorest — had an equal opportunity to reach their full potential?
Graduates, 41 years ago I was here in Reno delivering my class’s valedictory speech — delivering these opening lines:
“Graduation marks a great turning point in the lives of the Class of 1975. For four years at Manogue we have been takers and now it is time to become givers.”
Everything I’ve done since I left Bishop Manogue High School has been driven by my aspiration to be a “giver” — driven by the knowledge that the lives of fellow human beings are at stake and my confidence that we can do something about it.
So, today I want to ask you, graduates: What if? What if the class of 2016 is the most generous class ever to graduate from this high school? What if during your lifetimes you all — each in your own way — make powerful contributions towards improving the human condition?
In the hope that you will make that “What if” a reality, today I want to share with you three big lessons I’ve learned about giving, about generosity. My hope is that I can contribute to your thinking so that each one of you — individually and collectively — can tap into all of what you’ve learned at Bishop Manogue in service of others.
Lesson #1: Generosity comes in many forms.
It is not uncommon for us to define generosity as a check, a contribution, volunteer service, or a donation of some form. All of these are worthy and logical ways to give back. Yet, implicit in these more narrow definitions is the notion that one waits until reaching a certain critical mass of earnings or earthly goods or wisdom before one is generous. Don’t wait!
Many of the most meaningful generous acts involve generosity of spirit, service, or human interaction. These acts may involve a smile, a friendly wave or nod of the head, a wink or a twinkle in the eye, a handshake or a hug. Important in all of these acts is for that individual to see and feel a kindred spirit, a fellow traveler in the universe treating the other with recognition and respect — all signs of a human connection.
The most generous gift of all is acknowledgement of the humanity that lives within all of us, no matter who we are or what our circumstances may be.
And extra credit if that generosity of spirit takes place when no one is watching — no selfie, no social media posting — no one knows you’ve been generous but you.
Lesson #2: Generosity benefits from practice, feedback, and learning.
Like math, music, or sports, no one is born knowing how best to be generous, how to give in ways that make the greatest difference, or how best to work in collaboration with others to drive positive change.
Graduates, be open to learning, adjusting, and perhaps even unexpectedly hearing negative feedback as you strive to be generous. Anything less than a positive reaction to your efforts might make you feel defensive, or even cause you to “opt out” of important public discourse on how to improve your community’s schools, health care, air quality, or transportation. Don’t let that happen.
Be open to listening, learning, changing your mind, or respectfully working to change someone else’s mind. Anything important enough to attract your attention will surely attract the attention of others and so be it. Make it a point to get good at the dialogue. Listen to feedback; and you’ll be better for it.
Lesson #3: Here’s the good news — generosity brings happiness — and it is contagious!
As a scientist, I am always looking for data and analytics to guide my thinking. So, I was pleased to see data suggesting that generosity is associated with less depression and more happiness, and that Americans who are very giving in relationships are much more likely to be in excellent health than those who are not.
Definitive proof in the area of social sciences can be difficult, but the past decade has brought new and better insights into human behavior and how much our social network drives our behavior. As a result, we now suspect that generous behavior is, indeed, contagious. Recent findings suggest that when people benefit from kindness they pay it forward by helping others not originally involved, creating a cascade of cooperation that influences dozens more. Now that’s the kind of contagion I’d like to see! It shows the power that each of us has to positively influence others by our own example.
Graduates, today is a day to celebrate. You deserve to do that. Revel in the congratulations, the love and support of your families, and the respect you’ve earned from faculty and staff. As you turn to whatever is next, keep in mind the words of the inventor Thomas Edison, “If we all did the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.”